116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The coal mining town of Buxton is gone, but its memory is living on through Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre’s summer community puppet show tour.
“Remembering Buxton” will need people of all ages to join West Liberty-based puppeteers Monica Leo and Stephanie Vallez, as well as Des Moines musician Dartanyan Brown, to bring Buxton back to life.
“I've been interested in Buxton for probably 20 years, and I thought it would be really fun to do something with it for a puppet show, but I didn't feel comfortable about doing it without an African American collaborator,” Leo said, because even though Blacks and whites lived side by side there, the town is an important part of Black history in Iowa.
So last fall, she began collaborating on the script with historian and author Rachelle Chase of Uniting Through History, a nonprofit organization based in Ottumwa.
What: Eulenspiegel Puppets community participation show
When: 2 p.m. July 9, West Liberty’s New Strand Theatre or outdoors, depending on COVID numbers
Residencies: Also available for two- or three-day residencies with other towns, organizations and schools
Host town or group’s cost: $1,000 per day; financial assistance available
Participation details: To try your hand at being a puppeteer, or to host the show, call Eulenspiegel at (319) 627-2487 or email email@example.com or eptcoutreach@Lcom.net
“The thing that really intrigued me about Rachelle, too, was that she moved to Iowa because she found out about Buxton,” Leo said. “Somebody told her about Buxton and she was so intrigued with the story that she decided to move to Ottumwa and check it out.”
Because Eulenspiegel shows typically contain music, Leo also wanted to bring a Black musician onboard, calling upon Brown, whom she knew through a touring arts team in the 1980s. He said yes right away, and has written a couple of songs for the show. But his involvement doesn’t end there.
“It turns out that his family was one of founding families of Buxton,” Leo said. “I heard that I thought, ‘Well, that explains the kind of person he is,’ because there's something really upbeat and optimistic about him. And I think if you come from that kind of a family history — that had the courage to pick up and leave Alabama and move to Iowa, and to start all over again, and help found a town — that's something that's in your DNA.”
The puppets and script are finished, and organizers now are waiting for people who want to try their hand at working the rod puppets. The show will need seven to 12 people, from upper elementary to adults, to act as puppeteers or operate sound effects at each host town or site. Leo and Vallez will handle the speaking roles.
The Eulenspiegel troupe is preparing to present the show at 2 p.m. July 9, either at the New Strand Theatre in West Liberty or outdoors, depending on the COVID situation at that time.
Washington, Iowa, also has expressed interest in hosting the show, which is available for two- or three-day residencies for communities, organizations and schools. Cost is $1,000 per day, but Eulenspiegel has received a grant that can help defray those fees, as needed.
According to iowaculture.gov, Buxton, now a ghost town 17 miles southwest of Oskaloosa, was the largest coal town west of the Mississippi at its zenith.
A made-for-mining town, it was established in 1873 by the Consolidation Coal Company, which worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Miners were in such short supply that Consolidation Coal agents recruited African American workers from southern states to move to this southern Iowa site.
By the 1905 census, Buxton was home to 2,700 African Americans and 1,991 white residents, most of whom were Swedish immigrants. Blacks and whites were treated equally, held leadership and professional positions in town, and lived in the same neighborhoods.
“There was a prominent Black doctor in town who had white patients, and there were Black midwives who delivered white babies,” Leo said.
Buxton had two water towers, an African American YMCA with a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool, a brass band and the Buxton Wonders baseball team.
The only real separation Leo found was in their churches. “But I don't think that was by racist design,” Leo said. “That was just because they worship real differently. Swedes do not worship the way African Americans worship.”
The Iowa cultural website noted that Buxton’s coal production peaked during World War I. When trains converted from coal to diesel power, the demand for coal waned. On top of that, several fires swept through the community and the mines. By 1919, only 400 people were left in town, and in 1927, the last mine closed.
"When the mines played out, (the company) picked up the houses and moved them to different locations for their workers,“ Leo said.
And Buxton was, in essence, erased from existence.
“Remembering Buxton” looks at the town through the eyes of Anna Williams, a fictional white schoolteacher with a diverse student body and an African American husband and friends, Leo noted.
Audiences will learn about the integrated schools, neighborhoods, coal mine, YMCA and company store. They will hear the Buxton Brass Band; witness the fire that burned down the Y; and attend an event featuring Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the famous Black author, educator, orator and adviser to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The time is right to tell this story of community harmony.
“The most interesting thing about it is that it was possible that (Buxton) happened,” Leo said. ”I think we're in a situation right now, where we need as many hopeful stories as we can possibly find. Because somehow or other we have gotten ourselves into a situation where the general mood is one of depression, not one of hope.”
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